AS38: Debate with Blake Giunta, Part 2

I continue my debate with Blake Giunta. Can an immaterial mind even exist? Seems ridiculous to me, but let’s see what Blake has to say about that! Then, I do a bit of a post-mortem on the debate, as well as discuss several listener comments. Thanks for all the feedback and participation!

Blake’s impressive website:

Blake’s twitter: @BlakeGiunta

22 thoughts on “AS38: Debate with Blake Giunta, Part 2”

  1. Interesting discussion. I forget who said it, but the best description for mind I have heard is: “mind is what brains do.” I like your driving analogy as well. The more general description is that mind is a process, not a thing. Of course then mind is immaterial, but process require matter as far as I know. Sorry for the short comment, on my phone at work.

  2. Thomas,

    Thank you for the interesting debate and another great show! I think you did a good job offering challenges to Blake’s positions while encouraging dialog by being cordial. I will offer a few scatter-shot points in hope of moving things forward.

    “possibility comes cheap/ I don’t have to defend the possibility of something”
    Blake argued that we should accept possibilities of things because impossibilities of things are difficult to establish. Both possibility and impossibility of something are positive claims. Default position is lack of knowledge whether something is possible/impossible. The choice between accepting possibility vs accepting impossibility is a false dichotomy.

    In other words, we do not automatically accept something as impossible when we refuse to accept it as possible.

    “minds without matter”
    Blake says that he can imagine minds without matter. A mind without matter… how does it work? If Blake cannot answer that question, then what is he imagining?

    “people throughout history imagined minds without matter”
    This is an appeal to popularity. Blake employed this fallacy several times in the debate.

    He used this strategy in our email exchange as well. I challenged usage of the word “being” in “first cause” arguments (which is, in my view, an attempt to smuggle agency into the picture). He wrote that “being” is a synonym for “entity”, and it is the “broadest ontological category”. I challenged this clearly untenable position. He disengaged from the conversation after writing something like “philosophers typically use that word”. Please watch out for this trick.

    “all examples of minds are in brains”
    I get red flags when I hear it phrased that way, even though this is true. It sounds too much like the typical “problem of induction” example with 100 white swans.

    Mind is an emergent property of the brain. This is an empirical fact. In other words, we know that minds can emerge as a result of processes in the brain. Can minds exist without brains? We do not know. Is it possible or impossible? We do not know. Does Blake know something about that? How does he know it?

    “mind is an emergent property” angle is also helpful to explore when looking for analogies. For example, a mind without a brain is like a snowflake without water.

    Also, please note that in cosmological arguments people take knowledge from within the Universe, bring it outside the Universe, and apply it to the Universe itself. This can be viewed as claims of knowledge that is impossible to have… or just nonsense, since our language does not have meaning outside of our Universe.

    Thanks again!

    1. If true, his statement “People throughout history have imagined immaterial minds” isn’t an appeal to popularity. All Blake was arguing is that the idea of an immaterial mind isn’t self-inconsistent; he was arguing it could be imagined, which Thomas denied. That’s like saying “People throughout history have climbed Mount Everest” is an appeal to popularity in trying to prove it’s possible to climb Mount Everest; it’s actually a legitimate demonstration that it’s possible, because it’s actually been accomplished.

      However, it might not be true. People throughout history may only have believed themselves to be imagining immaterial minds because of a false understanding of what counts as immaterial. (For instance, someone claiming to imagine a square circle has a false understanding of either a square or a circle). The claim then would be something along the lines of “People throughout history have claimed to imagine immaterial minds,” which would be an appeal to popularity. However, I think the idea of an immaterial mind that is only as much of a mind, and only as immaterial, as it needs to be to be a creator God is not self-contradictory. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that a mind-like thing that exists on the other side of the Big Bang could at least be validly imagined, regardless of how it worked.

      Again, Blake does not claim to know that immaterial minds are possible (though he certainly believes it.) Blake is merely correctly observing, as have you, that an immaterial mind is not definitionally impossible. If we do not know whether immaterial minds exists, or whether they are possible, that certainly seems to indicate that they are metaphysically possible.

      1. Claim A: (it is possible to imagine immaterial minds)
        Claim B: (people throughout history have imagined immaterial minds)

        Claim B requires claim A to be true, but Blake going backwards and using claim B to argue for claim A.

        What does it mean to imagine something? I would argue that the imagined entity has to be meaningful and coherent. Thus a claim about immaterial minds must demonstrate coherence and meaning of that notion. Can we use those words to construct an actual concept? If the underlying concept is not coherent, then we are just imagining a word “immaterial” and a word “mind.”

        (Note that this is a typical problem in these discussions, where words like supernatural, god, soul, etc., are mistakenly treated like words that point to actual objects in reality…)

        Two examples to illustrate my point:

        A: I am imagining a square circle.
        B: How does it work?
        A: It is a 3-D structure. It looks like a circle from the top and it looks like a square from the side.

        Now we can proceed to discuss whether my 3-D structure can be classified as a square circle.

        B: I am imagining an immaterial mind.
        A: How does it work?
        B: It is immaterial, and it is a mind.

        Do you see? There is nothing I can do with that. I still have no idea what is an “immaterial mind.”

        1. I really like this discussion. I think I agree with Alexey, though I agree with Dale that Blake wasn’t making an appeal to popularity fallacy. Interestingly, if Blake or anyone wanted to just claim that god exists outside of our universe but is still material, I couldn’t really argue with that claim, except of course to say that there’s no reason TO believe it.

          1. I would not argue with that claim either… I would ask: how do you know this?

            Some version of a cosmological argument would likely follow, taking knowledge from inside the universe and applying it outside the universe.

        2. I understand all of your objections, and I thought I had addressed them. I will attempt to reframe my own argument.

          I don’t think the burden of proof is on Blake to demonstrate that a certain kind of immaterial mind could exist, or function in a certain way. I believe the burden of proof is on the opposite party to demonstrate an inherent conflict between the ideas of immateriality and being a mind. For instance, if I were to say “I am imagining a square circle,” I would respond “Well, that’s exactly impossible. A circle has to have infinite sides, and a square has to have exactly four even sides. These are incompatible ideas because infinity is not equal to four.” We don’t assume things are possible or impossible, but I think we do assume ideas are coherent unless proven otherwise.

          To put it another way:

          B: I am imagining an immaterial mind.
          A: That is incoherent.
          B: How so?
          A: Well, it is immaterial and a mind, and that can’t be!

          There’s nothing B can do with this, either. A has the burden of proof to demonstrate that the idea is incoherent.

          1. B: I am imagining and immaterial mind.
            A: What does this mean?

            I cannot say anything about B’s claim because I do not even understand what it means. What is he imagining?

          2. Apparently WordPress doesn’t want me to actually reply to your comment, so hopefully you’ll get notified of this or see it some other way anyway.

            Blake is pretty explicit about what he’s imagining: an entity that can reason and make moral judgments without being the result of the operation of any physical matter. “How” doesn’t matter here. “How” isn’t involved in a question of coherence, just in a question of possibility. I think an immaterial mind is probably impossible (just like a flying pig), but I don’t think it’s incoherent.

          3. There is no description of what Blake is actually imagining. He describes what it can do (can reason, etc), and what it is not (not material). It’s a trick.

            Let’s use the flying pig. I understand what is a “flying pig” if “flying” means “moving through the air.” I can imagine a flying pig that was launched by a catapult, or a pig with wings, for example. You may say no, this is a real pig propelling itself through real air. I say: I no longer understand what you mean.

            I can imagine a flying pig by doing one of the following:

            1) Come up with a way it can happen in reality.
            2) Suspend reality.

            If we suspend reality, we can have immaterial minds, flying pigs, and square circles.

            Note that I have no problem with Blake imagining a magical immaterial mind… but he is claiming to imagine a real one.

          4. You emphatically do *not* have to explain how a pig would fly in reality to argue the concept of flying pig is coherent, even if an actual flying pig is impossible. I can say “a flying pig is coherent idea” because if you imagine a pig flapping its wings in the air to fly, then it’s a coherent idea, regardless of whether the wings would actually allow the pig to take off on Earth’s atmosphere with Earth’s gravity. What’s important is that there is nothing in the definition of a pig that automatically precludes it from flying if given the opportunity, even if the opportunity is literally impossible.

            This is what distinguishes the example from a square circle. You can’t imagine a square circle. Anything you tried would be only one at most, and probably neither. Definitionally, a square can’t be a circle, and vice-versa.

            Describing what a mind does *is* describing a mind. A mind isn’t a literally thing, it’s a process carried out by something, in this case always by a brain, but potentially also carried about computers. Blake argues that this process could be carried by something that isn’t matter in our universe, and I don’t see any reason to tell him such a thing couldn’t even be imagined, even if it is impossible.

          5. Cylinder is a square from the side and a circle from the top.

            nothing in the definition of a pig that automatically precludes it from flying if given the opportunity
            What is a pig? Can pigs fly? Is a flying pig still a pig?

          6. Cylinder “is” nothing like a square from the side or a circle from the top. A cylinder traces a circle when viewed from the top and traces a square when viewed from the side. That’s neither a square nor a circle. When some says “a square circle”, they mean a two dimensional figure that is both square and circle.

            A biologist would probably argue that a pig with wings is a different species, but that’s irrelevant to the discussion. No one would claim that something that is entirely a pig, but with wings that could make it fly, wasn’t functionally a flying pig.

  3. Once again, the starting point of “does god exist” is a really silly place to start sine you can define almost anything at that point. I’ll quote hitch here…

    “But if you’ve established deism you’ve got all your work still ahead of you to be a theist… Now, I don’t see how you get from your uncaused cause to that, to the idea that we are divinely created, supervised by someone who cares for us. ”

    I would try to flesh out the definition of mind a little. A mind is a system of examining, creating, and organizing symbolic relationships. I can’t think of any kind of symbolic relationship that would mean anything without matter to symbolize. Concepts like space and time only mean something because we’ve actually experienced them, with our material senses.

    I can imagine a mind, made out of spiritual matter that behaved differently than normal matter, but ultimately it would still be made out of something, and it would have some kind of behavior. I would also say that this spiritual mind would need some kind of sensory input in order to actually do anything- it would need either a tether to material senses (a soul) or some kind of sensory organ that detected other spiritual objects.

    Maybe its plausible to believe that god lives in a spirit world, then he created another world in addition to his own that behaves on different properties, then that’s a dualism I can comprehend… but God himself would still be made out of something.

  4. Just listened to the recap… now I feel like an ass for quoting Hitchens at you. I don’t want to say I don’t like your style of engagement… I just think that the dead horse is dead, when it comes to atheist vs. deist debate.

  5. Good discussion! I really liked the debate and @Thomas: chapeau! (well done in french ;-). It is difficult enough to debate someone that is as well-spoken as Blake.

    The “modern dualism” argument that Blake is using is also emphasized by Saul Kripke who states that if monism is true, that mind and body being one is a *necessity*. But is possible that the two could exist apart in one world or another (or so Kripke states). So for example the phrase “the current president of the USA” refers to Obama, but in another world this could easily have been David Bowie. But in both worlds they *refer* to the same entity/person. In this sense monism can’t be true as it implies a necessity that can not be.

    However this is only true if this applies to all worlds (necessity) and not *some* possible worlds (contingency). The mind-body problem could be of the latter.

    (see the internet for more variants of dualism).

  6. Excellent show and great episode.

    I will offer one criticism; it would be advisable to not use the “we don’t have any examples of x” argument to argue against x with Blake. It’s not a great argument and you can come up with the “there’s a first time for everything” response, as Blake did. Maybe you could engage Blake from a mechanistic standpoint – challenge him to define how an immaterial mind could result from the state of absence of an immaterial mind, and how that mind could conceptualise notions of physicality that it had no experience with (a necessary process for God, and an ideal trap for the “because He’s God!” answer which is kind of begging the question).

    Another commenter made the excellent point that we could easily believe all of Blake’s points if he just said it was all “magic”, as the laws of reality would be completely suspended. This is actually simultaneously quite amusing, and quite telling…In the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, or Game ot Thrones, gods may be entirely plausible.

    To me, Blake failed to satisfactorily conceptualise a coherent description of an immaterial mind. I’m not decided yet on whether this notion is coherent (maybe it is) but I’ve just not yet got my head around it, as it were. What Blake described, was a mind with no senses which was disconnected from matter, and had no interaction with matter ostensible to that mind. However, to me this does not prove that the mind is not still necessarily grounded in matter itself.

    I heard a good argument on the whole notion of “possibility” on The Atheist Experience. Blake’s assertion that “possibility comes easy” is misplaced because he is assuming that there being a God is even a potential outcome within the subset of all outcomes. We do not know this for sure. Taking the example of some dice in a bag (we do not know exactly how many dice), we can say that it would be possible to roll a total of 5 or 20 for example, and we may be right. However, depending on how many dice there actually are, there are some totals which it will not even be possible to roll. For example, you can’t roll 13 with 2 dice or 2 with 3 dice.

    Similarly, I do not know for sure that a God is even possible in the real world. Whenever you come up with a good argument he’ll say “What you’ve just done there is an example of x (eg. materialism) and I have my good philosophical arguments against x”. If those arguments are so good, ask Blake why 70 % of philosophers are atheists or agnostics. I’ve looked at this “substance dualism” business he enthused about and it seem very ridiculous to me.

    Not to sound mean to Blake but he was frustrating me by the end…Maybe I could define him as a “mechanistic nihilist” and be done with it !

  7. Here is another way to illustrate this.

    Let’s say I chose to ignore what science tells us about diseases. Instead, I think that diseases are caused by evil spells. I say: I am imagining a flu… but there are no viruses involved, just evil spells. Am I really imagining a flu?

    I say: I am imagining the creation of the world as described in Genesis. Am I really imagining the creation of the world?

    I say: I am imagining an immaterial mind. Am I really imagining a mind?

    A flying pig is not really a pig, is it now? When our imagination deviates from empirical facts, we are no longer imagining the thing we claim to be imagining.

  8. Another great episode and unbelievable comment chain everyone! Wow! I will just say the neuroscience denial is going to be a big topic in the future of the theism debate. For anyone who wants to jump in the way back machine here is a classic – Reasonable Doubts episode from 2010 featuring Dr. Steven Novela as a guest: They discuss neuroscience denial at length.

    The mind is what the brain does!

    Let’s have that free will episode Thomas!

  9. I found it strange when Blake wanted to posit a mind with no sensation that still somehow experienced emotions and thoughts. Those are sensations as well. And our thoughts being organized with language means you can’t have them unless you have some sort of communication or interaction with an outside world: sensation. A mind without sensation is not a mind at all because it’s not experiencing anything.

  10. I think that the mind / brain relationship is analogous to software running on a computer. You can describe what the software is doing, take for example a video playing in youtube. But the software itself is not a material thing. Rather it describes (or prescribes in the case of a computer) how a computer should change state. When we say software is running on a computer, what that really means is the computer is changing state in some predetermined fashion.

    The question, is it possible for software to run without a computer, could be reworded as, is it possible for a computer to change state without a computer. This seems incoherent.

    But if I’m simply faced with the question, can I imagine software running without a computer, I might be tempted to say yes. I can imagine all the mathematical operations that would be running to produce video. But I think what I would be imagining would be incoherent. What does it mean for mathematical operations to be occurring if there is nothing performing those mathematical operations?

    Perhaps Blake would respond by denying that a mind is merely the description we give to processes occurring inside of a brain.

    Anyways, I’d be curious to hear what anyone thinks of this analogy. Thomas seems like a pretty sharp guy, so the fact that he didn’t suggest this analogy has me wondering if it contains a fatal flaw.

    1. Well a given analogy isn’t going to occur to everyone. I used the analogy of driving and a car, which I think is similar in many respects. I like yours too though. I could further imagine that if highly advanced computers were shown to people from a thousand years ago, they might conclude there’s no way the amazing visuals they were seeing on the screen could somehow exist inside the hardware. In some ways that’s kind of what happened when humans emerged into thoughtfulness. We were presented with this computer in our heads that is more advanced by a wide margin than anything we’ve yet to invent. So no wonder it seems like magic.

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